Pillar Three: Food as a Transformative Mechanic
Where classic uses of food provide straightforward boosts to the player, such as restoring hit points or temporarily increasing a specific player attribute, transformative use of food is one where the food itself adds a new mechanic, which means that the food changes how the game is played.
For example, we discussed how in Nethack eating certain corpses can give the player teleportitis, a disease that randomly teleports the player around the map. If the player reaches level 8 as a wizard or level 12 as another character class, the player can control where they teleport. In the hands of the right user, this ability can dramatically change how the challenges in Nethack are conquered.
The most famous example of eating to transform gameplay is the character of Kirby. His copy mechanic was introduced in Kirby’s Adventure, the second installment in the Kirby series. By eating certain enemies, Kirby acquires their unique abilities. These abilities can be used to access other areas of levels or to solve challenges in a way not possible with Kirby’s vanilla set of skills.
The power to copy enemy abilities through eating has persisted through the Kirby games and his role in the Super Smash series.
Though he may not be as popular as Kirby, Yoshi perhaps deserves credit for inspiring Kirby’s eating mechanic. Released two years before Kirby’s Dream Land, Super Mario World introduced Super Nintendo players to Yoshi, Mario’s rideable dinosaur pal.
Yoshi’s ability to eat introduces a variety of new mechanics that are not available to Mario alone. Yoshi can eat enemies that Mario cannot defeat otherwise, and eating colored shells allows Yoshi to spit fire, slam the ground, or even fly. While these mechanics are not as dynamic as the ones Kirby would bring to the gaming scene a few years later, the kernel of the core ideas seems to be present in Yoshi’s character.
Where Yoshi and Kirby treat eating as a tactical choice, a decision between what ability to use at what points in a level, the Metal Slug series took food as a transformative mechanic in a different direction.
In Metal Slug 2, overeating is a real danger to the player. As it is in many games, eating food in Metal Slug is generally a good thing, but if the player eats too much, the character becomes obese. With that comes a penalty in movement speed and a character sprite that reflects the player’s weight gain. Because of the run and gun nature of Metal Slug, this penalty is more than a basic debuff. It changes the physics of the character, radically altering how the player moves through a level and battles enemies.
Metal Slug 3 introduces a rideable elephant slug who can also consume various items throughout the game. If the elephant slug eats chili peppers, it can shoot fire, which feels a lot like Yoshi’s ability to spit fireballs.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas added to the calorie-management legacy begun by Metal Slug. CJ is a busy criminal, and criminals need to eat. If the player feeds CJ too much, he gains weight. If he gains too much weight, his sprint is limited and even his driving ability is affected. If CJ does not eat enough, his health suffers, so the player is forced to balance CJ’s eating and activity throughout the game.
While Metal Slug and GTA have you thinking about the foods you eat, Resident Evil 2 allows you to become food. If you finish the main story with fewer than four saves and do not use first aid sprays, you can unlock the Tofu Survivor, a sentient piece of tofu who braves Raccoon City with only a knife, which is the coolest thing a piece of Tofu has ever gotten to do.
These kinds of mechanics were more crucial discussion points in the Bite the Bullet design process, but those ideas did not begin fully formed. They too had to evolve and transform during development.
Next week is Pillar Four: Food as a Key Resource.